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April 22, 2014 10:48 AM The Unswingers

By Ed Kilgore

So the New York Times’ 538-ish substitute subsite “The Upshot” debuts today with two items (so far) of special interest to political animals. The first is a Senate race predictions feature suggesting a narrow probability for a Republican takeover, and more usefully, providing a nifty chart comparing other “experts’” (538, Cook, Rothenberg, Sabato) state-by-state projections in competitive races. Assuming they keep this up, the chart can definitely give you a quick read on changing perceptions of key Senate races.

The second features is a succinct argument by political scientist Lynn Vavreck (co-author with John Sides of The Gamble, an unorthodox but fascinating book on the 2012 presidential election) that the 2014 elections aren’t going to be “about” which party appeals to swing voters. She offers numbers (more controversially, they are from interactive pollster YouGov) suggesting that “preference switchers” represented at most a modest factor in the 2010 Republican landslide, with turnout differentials being massively more important.

So the idea that “America changed its mind” between 2008 and 2010, or “voters rejected Obama’s leadership” in 2010 or any such suggestions of deliberative activity, greatly overrates the significance of “swing voters,” and also assumes that turnout differentials are based on “enthusiasm gaps” (about which Vavreck herself is a lot more “enthusiastic” than I am) rather than ancient demographic turnout patterns that happen to have a disproportionately partisan impact at this particular moment in history.

Vavreck is certainly a writer who relishes unambiguous mythbusting:

It may seem hard to believe that the shellacking was more about who turned up than about who changed their minds between 2008 and 2010, but it lines up with a lot of other evidence about voters’ behavior. Most identify with the same political party their entire adult lives, even if they do not formally register with it. They almost always vote for the presidential candidate from that party, and they rarely vote for one party for president and the other one for Congress. And most voters are also much less likely to vote in midterm elections than in presidential contests.

Thus the headline: “The Myth of Swing Voters in Midterm Elections.”

It seems the Times is seeking a balance between pretty charts and wonky authors and big bold headlines. Or that at least is the Upshot.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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